Dying to Serve: The Mass Burials at Kerma

Article excerpt


Kerma, the Bronze Age capital of the Kushite Kingdom in Upper Nubia (Sudan), was the site of the earliest African complex society outside of Egypt, and Egypt's adversary for control of the Nile trade. Kerma (the modern name of the site) was equally renowned for its distinctive funerary landscape: 80-90ha of tumuli presided over by two imposing mud-brick temples. Mass interments of hundreds of individuals occurred within the corridors of the largest of these tumuli that also held the corporeal remains of the king (Figure 1). There has been much speculation about the identity of these 'corridor people' based on the implicit assumption that they were contemporaries of the king and not, for example, interred later--either within the existing structure or an addition to the central chamber. The traditional view is that they were loyal subjects. Specifically, it was speculated that they were mostly female members of the king's entourage and other persons, such as servants family, trusted friends and administrators, who voluntarily accompanied their king to his grave (Adams 1977; Bonnet 1990b; O'Connor 1993; Kendall 1997; Edwards 2004). This interpretation rests solely on Reisner's (1923a) authoritative opinion following his excavation of the site nearly 100 years ago, from 1913-16. It is the purpose of the present report to test the likelihood of his view.

Egyptian texts are unusually silent about the culture of 'wretched' Kush as they preferred to call this territory (Adams 1977; Smith 2003; Edwards 2004)--most likely to not empowered their enemy. However, a recently discovered inscription in Governor Sobeknakht's tomb at Elkab, Egypt, dated to the end of the Classic Kerma period (1550 BC), provides evidence of the northerly extent of Kerma's military activities (Davies 2003). This inscription recounts the Kushite penetration of Egypt to Elkab, and their plunder-laden return to Kerma. It was proposed that the monumental Egyptian statuary and stelae in the Kerma funerary corridors were trophies of this and other incursions, and were interred with the Kerma kings as a symbol of infinite Kushite supremacy (Davies 2003). Furthermore, this explanation may extend to the dead interred within these corridors, who may in fact have been the human victims of Kushite pillage.


Here we revisit Reisner's interpretation by testing three hypotheses involving the skeletal remains of people within their funerary contexts. If Reisner was correct, there should be no difference in the frequencies of skeletal trauma due to antemortem interpersonal violence and perimortem injuries among people in the corridors, versus those interred elsewhere, in what have been termed subsidiary burials. If the people interred in the corridor were indeed prisoners of war, they would have more likely been physically abused while alive and later forcibly interred or slaughtered. There should also be no significant difference genetically between individuals comprising the corridor and subsidiary burials, since both groups would have been drawn from the same local Kerman population. Assuming that phenetic similarity provides an estimate of genetic relatedness both groups should, based on comparisons of cranial measurements in the present study, share a close affinity. The Kushite burial configuration was distinct, so if burials within the corridor adhere to the Kushite orientation, posture and ritually placed indigenous grave goods they would be more probably Kerman, rather than captives from outside the region.

If the captive hypothesis is supported, Kerma may indeed prove to have been more powerful than previously thought, having been capable of herding captive Egyptians over an expanse of inhospitable territory during two centuries of growing Kushite military power. If it is rejected, then Reisner's speculations may be supported, i.e. the people interred within the corridor were Kermans who accompanied their king to the afterlife, willingly or unwillingly. …